It started innocently enough, in a season when teams were having trouble scoring and pitching was dominant.
The Cubs entered the second game of a series in Atlanta at .500, 30-30, six games out of first place. Like most teams, they had struggled to score runs that year. At that point of the season they were averaging just 3.67 runs per game, a figure that would translate to 594 runs in a 162-game season. (By comparison, the 2017 Cubs scored their 594th run in their 123rd game, and the 2018 Cubs, averaging 4.87 runs per game, would pass 594 in their 122nd game if they keep up that pace.)
The Cubs took a 2-0 lead in that June 15, 1968 game on a two-run double by Lou Johnson in the second inning. Those would be the last runs they would score for nearly a week.
The Braves tied that game 2-2 in the fourth, and won it on what we now call a walkoff (a double by Hank Aaron, and they didn’t call them “walkoffs” in 1968) in the 10th inning. The Cubs didn’t score in the final eight innings of that game.
Scoreless streak: 8⅔ innings (because they scored those two runs with one out in the second)
Fergie Jenkins threw 10 shutout innings, one more than his opponent, Phil Niekro, in a battle of future Hall of Famers.
Yes, starters still threw into extras in those days. With two out and two on in the top of the 10th, Leo Durocher sent Al Spangler up to bat for Fergie. Spangler was a good pinch-hitter who had 11 pinch hits that year, including a double, two triples and a home run. But here, he grounded out, and in the bottom of the 10th, Chuck Hartenstein issued a one-out walk and Joe Torre hit a double for another Braves walkoff win, 1-0.
Scoreless streak: 18⅔ innings
After an off day, the Cubs began a three-game series in St. Louis. It didn’t help the offense. The Cubs had eight hits and three walks and went 0-for-9 with RISP. (Sound familiar?)
Bobby Tolan homered off Bill Hands in the fifth inning, the only run of the game, the second straight 1-0 loss. Nelson Briles of the Cardinals completed this game, an eight-hit shutout.
Scoreless streak: 27⅔ innings
Steve Carlton, another future Hall of Famer, one-hit the Cubs, the only hit a single by Glenn Beckert leading off the fourth inning. This was one of 23 times the Cubs were one-hit during their record no-hit streak of 7,920 games between 1965 and 2015.
Rich Nye got knocked out of the game in the fourth inning, by which time he’d allowed four runs, including a two-run homer by Orlando Cepeda.
Scoreless streak: 36⅔ innings
This was one of the famous Fergie Jenkins/Bob Gibson matchups that occurred regularly in the era of those Hall of Famers. Jenkins allowed just four hits and one run and struck out 11. But Gibson, who had one of the greatest pitching seasons ever in 1968, threw a five-hit shutout. All five hits were singles, one by Jenkins, and only one Cub reached second base. The only Cardinals run scored on a triple by Lou Brock, followed by a Curt Flood single.
Fergie’s W/L record that year, back when W/L actually meant something, was 20-15. He was the losing pitcher in five 1-0 games in 1968, two of them in this streak alone.
Scoreless streak: 45⅔ innings
At last, after being shut out four straight times and for most of a fifth game, the Cubs broke through on the scoreboard with one out in the third against the Reds in Cincinnati. Not that it was any great offensive feat — Reds pitcher George Culver walked the bases loaded and Billy Williams hit a sacrifice fly for a 1-0 lead.
Hooray! The streak ended at 48 innings, which set a National League record and tied the major-league record set by the 1906 Philadelphia Athletics.
The Cubs won the game 3-2, but not before the Reds had the tying and winning runs on base in the bottom of the ninth. Ted Abernathy got Chico Ruiz to pop up to end it, and it happened 50 years ago today.
That Cubs team continued to struggle, though. They lost six in a row after that win to drop to 10 games under .500 at 31-41, and hit 10 under again at 35-45. But then they had a fantastic second-half run, going 49-33 to finish at 84-78, to this day the only Cubs team to come from 10 games under .500 to finish with a winning record, a prelude to the great start the team had the following year. (The 2007 Cubs are second to this, coming from nine under at 22-31 to finish 85-77.) The 1968 Cubs wound up scoring 612 runs, which in that scoring-challenged season was second-best in the National League. (In 2017, 612 runs would have been second-to-last in the N.L., better only than the Padres, who scored 604.)
This scoreless streak remains the MLB record to this day. The Kansas City Royals made a run at it last year, but came up five innings short. You can read about that here. Fortunately, this year’s Cubs are a lot better offensively than their 1968 counterparts.